ruminations about architecture and design

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

why people move to colorado

And other places in the American West.

Since we moved to a new office I've discovered how my morning commute has shifted in subtle ways. Although we are only two city blocks away from the old location I find that I know longer take the same walking routes to and from the train stations I use. If I want, I can walk through Chinatown without feeling like I'm going out of my way. When good weather comes again I may switch back to my old route because it brings me through more green spaces.

Monday, December 30, 2013

functional and attractive

Wood shutters are an interesting architectural product. In contemporary houses they are value engineered into oblivion in some circumstances. If used, they are installed incorrectly. They are actually solar shading devices--not something that helps protect windows during storms (usually).

Closed shutters make a house look a bit foreboding.

A new year is coming. I should be working on my prediction list. Or decorating my office. I don't have any of my work pinned up anywhere.

Friday, December 27, 2013

large building syndrome

I'm reading a book about Comic Con right now and it has me thinking about convention center design. I don't think I've ever been inside the main hall of any modern convention center building. I attended a seminar at the Boston Convention Center, but not in the main hall. Architects refer to them as "black boxes" because they create a complete sensory experience that makes the outside world seem like a distant memory. This psychological independence is an illusion that becomes all the more ironic when we consider the massive support infrastructure needed for a Convention Center. We call this support system a "city."

Incidentally, the Boston Convention Center is smaller.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The movie "Elysium" makes list of architectural movies

Okay, I had trouble finding images of the urban landscapes used in the film. I guess Google images is more interested in the prettier images of the space station than the misery of Earth.

In any event, the movie isn't very good as a story, but its visual imagery puts it on my list of films where the architecture plays a primary character role. I couldn't help but notice that the preferred architecture of Elysium seems to be Southern California/Eastern Florida resort style. Spanish revival/eclectic with large yards and palm trees.

No one considers New England to be paradise.

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 predictions revisited

Okay, here's what I said about a year ago:

1. The American economy will muddle along, despite any idiocy in Washington, Europe, or Asia. The Massachusetts economy will do slightly better than expected (this is a high risk prediction...I may eat crow by the end of the year, or sooner).

2. Things will get worse in Egypt, Syria, and Israel. Worse how? does it matter? worse always for ordinary people.

3. Things will get worse in some parts of Europe--Spain, Greece, Italy, Britain.

4. Energy prices will increase slightly, but not enough to really impact economic growth trends. The shale gas and oil boom will fade a bit. I should insulate my attic.

5. No meaningful action will occur on gun control.

6. Architecture will get more conservative. We've entered an age of maturity and relative sobriety in design. No major revolutions in building technology will occur. The "wired" (or wireless) building will not gain traction. If we're smart, energy efficiency performance of enclosures will improve, at least in the U.S. We might start to catch up to Europe.

And, my analysis:

#1. Mostly right. Massachusetts isn't is doing as well as it should be doing. So it goes.

#2. Mostly right.

#3. Mostly wrong. Things are still flatlined, but not that worse from what I've been reading.

#4. Mostly wrong.  Energy costs are flat. I got my attic insulated, but I won't know the effects until the end of the heating season.

#5. That was an easy one. If anything, we've slid backwards.

#6. Too soon to tell.

very late in the day monday blogging

Some buildings. Some lawn. A hedge-row. A sidewalk. A street. All the elements of urban landscaping are shown here. Is it helpful to know that this is in the Northeast? New York City specifically? I'm still trying to figure out if there's something noteworthy here. Towers of Ilium always has a comment, but maybe this sublime image of the built environment is beyond criticism.

Or, maybe I'm being lazy. What I should do is go back to the predictions I made for 2013 and come up with some sort of spin that makes it seem like I knew what I was talking and writing about.

Friday, December 20, 2013


I predict that the current Ikea business model will fail in the next 4 decades. I present the following argument:

-A Chinese competitor will engage them in a price war and poach  market share in emerging markets
-People will get sick of the lousy quality of most of their products (but won't mind the lower prices of the competition for the same junk)
-Their physical plant, particularly stores, will deteriorate and will not be refurbished aggressively enough to attract new customers
-Their products will become stylistically obsolete
-Their management will become complacent, corrupt, and useless

In other words, Ikea will end up like Sears, Bradlee's, Howard Johnson's, Packard, etc....


My post title has absolutely nothing to do with the post topic. Towers of Ilium apologizes for the lack of consistency.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

it looked best just before the end

A client sent me this picture as an inspiration. He's candid enough to admit that he likes the aspects of decay and dilapidation.

Everything I design will one day end up in a landfill, or be consumed in flames. I find comfort in this. Only yesterday I threw away some sketches I had done for a project twelve years ago. Who am I to judge my work as worth saving? Good art gets saved because it gets lucky. If we stop to ponder what has been lost over the ages we should be filled with a sense of hope and joy. Someday, someone may come up with something similar and we can enjoy that creation for its novelty without the burden of comparing it to some dusty relic.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

defining architectural service

A client commented that they expect to receive a "final and complete design" and would not pay their bill until we delivered on this.

There is no "final and complete design" in architecture--or any artistic or technical process. The design is a fluid and always incomplete description of a future state. Certain arbitrary milestones, which are reached by consensus or fiat, signify a temporary state of completion, but finality should never the be objective. Even the endpoint of a construction or assembly period should be used as an opportunity to make a critical commentary on the success of the design.

Something on paper means nothing if it doesn't reach the right person.

Monday, December 16, 2013

meanwhile, back in middle earth

Just saw the second installment of the Hobbit movie today and I'm a bit grumpy. While I appreciate the effort that goes into the visual effects of today's movies, I'm getting irritated by the insanity of the architecture. There's no logic to how the buildings go together--everything is just a profusion of staircases, towers, and deep pits that orcs are constantly falling into. The sets don't seem to advance the story, they just exist to serve as backdrops for elaborate, drawn out fight scenes.

I know that towers of ilium is old-fashioned, but many modern movies would be better served by less computerized clutter. The Avengers movie did a decent job of using the sets as a framing device for the storyline. The Lord of the Rings also did a good job with its sets--grand halls, simple halls, evil towers, the lovely warmth of Bag End, and a structural realism that helped the characters instead of getting in the way.

another question

On his blog Boing Boing Cory Doctorow mentioned in passing that he thought that architecture peaked in the 1920's. He happened to be linking to James Kunstler's blog "Eyesore of the Month."

I'm still trying to formulate a response to that claim, partly because I agree with it, and partly because I'm irritated with the proposition of such a question. 16th century English drama and poetry peaked with Shakespeare--full stop. Jazz age architecture peaked with the Chrysler Building.

People like Doctorow and Kunstler tend to look at the stylistic elements of buildings. They sense in modernism, and its descendants, the decline of concern in designers for visual delight. What they don't acknowledge is the increasing complexity of building function and the often vicious economic pressures at all levels of construction services.

Friday, December 13, 2013

the performance of memory

This image is a good example of the limitations of architectural photography. If things go according to plan I'll be having a cultural experience here tonight. Sometimes things go to plan, but they rarely go exactly to plan.

I've been thinking a lot about office space lately. I wish that I had put more thought into that subject several months ago. But, as I noted above, things don't always go exactly to plan. The space I need for a computer, some useful odds and ends, inspirational artwork, and random junk is quite limited. But, my experience of an office is governed by the total work environment. My productivity depends on good architecture, but it doesn't suffer if things aren't quite perfect.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

where christmas comes from

As the boys say, Santa can go F*@# himself. Amazon runs Christmas now. Hub distribution warehouses, along with data centers, are the critical architecture of the wired age. We should remind ourselves that modern technology needs large, generic buildings with good vehicle access, staffed by underpaid people who are treated like shit. The Nation had a pretty good article on this recently.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

the crossfit bubble

While I am intrigued by the Crossfit phenomenon, I doubt I would ever joing such a gym. In general, I think they are positive force in the fitness industry. They have more credibility than the Nautilus/Cardio/Toning/Pilates outfits (it's unfair of me to lump those disparate exercise systems together, but towers of ilium is not about fairness). As an architect and a weightlifter, I appreciate the aesthetic quality of their gyms.

But, I think there is a Crossfit bubble developing. Eventually, some of these franchises will fold and the financial underpinnings of the system will face contraction. Injuries will generate negative feedback and potential lawsuits, and fickle consumers will embrace some new fad. I think the "Crossfit" model can survive by diversifying and creating more exercise and training protocols. In essence, they can follow the dictum of Dan John that he applied to training methodologies: "Everything works for two weeks, but nothing works for more than six weeks."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

the furniture edition of towers of ilium

I have two glaring deficiencies in my design education and knowledge base: HVAC and furniture. I am aware of HVAC design in a general sense, but I need to find some opportunity to do actual layouts--maybe even calcs. Furniture is a whole other bogeyman. Architects think they know about furniture, but we're actually quite dim. All generations are littered with building design that doesn't consider furniture. Worse, when architects design furniture they do it in complete ignorance of the human body. Granted, for many centuries there was not much in the way of true knowledge of ergonomics, but Architects saw fit to disregard common sense in search of some lofty concept. 

I feel comfortable at the chair I am sitting in now. Maybe I'm deluding myself.

Monday, December 9, 2013

the value of unexceptional places

This has been my office for the past 7 years. Prior to having this as my exclusive domain I had a desk out in the drafting room for about 5 years. The building my firm has been in for 47 years has been sold and we're moving a few blocks over. Adieu Newbury Street.

This space has always been this shabby and messy looking. I'm sitting at the computer right now. There are pieces of foam core over the window to block out the glare and the view westward down Newbury Street. The desks and drawers are built in. The flooring is vinyl asbestos tile. I have various decorations, but nothing sophisticated. It is, in nearly all respects, a luxurious and commodious space.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

the glory and joy of home ownership

A client had a good rejoinder to a claim I made last week at a project meeting. When I was asked about a certain door layout decision, I said: "We've done it before." He replied: "Yes, but that doesn't mean it was a good idea." And, now back to the original programming:

The purchase of a dwelling creates a powerful, and often subtle change of mindset. Where a renter can feel isolated from decisions about the layout and character of a living space, a homeowner operates in an environment of long term responsibility. Even the regularity of monthly payments takes on a different meaning. A renter simply sends money somewhere and doesn't worry about things for another thirty days. A homeowner sends money somewhere and worries about things for another thirty years.

But, in general, the homeowner doesn't have to operate in an atmosphere of panic, or feel burdened by the countless decisions that could consume all the freedoms and privileges of a house. Rather, the homeowner gets to eliminate a layer of bureaucracy and communication in the context of repairs, improvements, and maintenance. All architectural problems associated with a house can be resolved with money and labor. There is no need to negotiate or consult with a landlord or the associated minions of property management companies. Also, with the exception of fire, no repair has to be conducted immediately.

Friday, December 6, 2013

relatively easy fascism

I'm considering adding the Hunger Games series to my list of architectural movies. I'm particularly struck by the portrayal of the Capital City. It does a good job of being surreal and familiar. The CGI isn't over the top and I get the sense of restraint displayed by the visual team that put it together.

Fascist architecture is most often associated with Albert Speer, but he was merely channeling the dominant themes of his day and rendering it in a manner that taps into the uncanny. His work cannot be viewed separately from his client, even for the purposes of intellectual discussion.

Meanwhile, they're remaking Robocop, and towers of ilium is not pleased by that. We can expect 60 million dollars of computer generated stunts and gunfights. Probably flying cars. The visceral power of the original cannot be repeated by the formulaic producers of contemporary Hollywood.

I'm wondering if the corporate modernism of the 50's, 60's, and 70's--which I thoroughly despise--was an accurate reflection of the prosperity of the nation. It feels like an aberration. The real story is in single family housing and the suburbanization of the country. 57 million houses and the thousands of miles of roads connecting them seems more important than the steel and concrete idiocy created by Rudolph, Kallman McKinnel, TAC, Ben Thompson, and others.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

it was a nice idea

Something I designed--a theater in steel framed industrial building somewhere in Massachusetts. It won't get built, but I don't regret the experience. I hope a check is in the mail.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

the continuing saga of rafi segal

I wonder if anything I post on this blog will come back to haunt me. Efforts at self-promotion, the exercise of free speech, and lunatic ravings are all worthwhile ventures--especially in the age of the internet.

So, Bing Wang wrote a response to Michael Sorkin's article in the May 2013 Nation in which she points out that Segal was disqualifid from the National Library competition because he misrepresented the level of his collaboration with Wang's firm, Hyperbina. Given that all architectural competitions are corrupted by subjectivity I don't hold anything against Segal. I also think that Wang is being vindictive. She is not the wronged party in this affair, and her collaboration with Segal was bungled more by her than by him. All architecture is collaborative and we only assign authorship because we have a humanistic bias towards the mythology of individual creation.

(add. typo corrected)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

while riding on a train heading west

I paused on my walk to the office this morning to observe the progress of demolition at a building site in Chinatown. I had been expecting this move for over a year based on the status of construction  of the new building adjacent to it, but I will admit that I was still surprised. Demolition thwarts our perception of the permanence of buildings. It also forces us to consider that the association between age and quality is quite subjective. An old building may have an abundance of poor attributes, but it can persist for generations because the justification for tearing it down didn't exist. Also, I have learned the hard way that the cost of renovation often exceeds the cost of new construction, and more importantly, does not guarantee the improvements in function that can be achieved with a new design.

We persist in renovating older structures for reasons of nostalgia and short term economy. All forms of repair work are more expensive in the context of existing conditions. However, the repairs and upgrades do not have to be undertaken all at once, nor do they need to be done correctly. This last point is frustrating but it is the reality of modern building operations and architectural services. We do not build for all time--only for a few years.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

better than vinyl siding

This is what the BAC building on 320 Newbury Street could look like--a double skin glazing system over the existing concrete exterior. In many respects, it is an obvious solution to a very visible problem. What is curious is that the current building is probably protected by the Back Bay Historic District Commission. I wonder how they would respond to something like this.

This was designed and rendered by a student I have been working with. I hope she gets a chance to work on a project like this someday.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

considering dan kiley

As a rule, I have more respect for landscape architects than building architects. Dan Kiley, who has a photo retrospective in the BAC gallery, stands on a higher plane than all the modernist American architects. He makes modernism look good. I'm not entirely sold on the hardscape elements, and some of his open spaces look a little authoritarian. His compositions are complete, no matter the setting, so I can't criticize minor details in good faith.

Bad landscape architecture seems to be exclusively modern. There is a lot of fussy pre-modern stuff, but it's never offensive or miserable. The Christian Science center is almost okay, until you try to spend some time in it. The fountain looks pretty when it is turned on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

the perils of false pattern recognition bias

I like to think that I understand Nate Silver, but my tiny primate brain still wants to believe certain things that are probably not true. For example, the graph above proves that it is impossible to claim that there is any sort of solid pattern to homebuilding in the U.S. In general, housing starts match population growth, but the complex interaction of interest rates, inflation, politics, and demographics create a natural volatility. No single factor can explain what can or should happen over the next decade. I'm tempted to say that there was less volatility prior to 1970, but if we were to extend this graph back to the 1930's we would see some real wildness.

Could there be a way to smooth this out? Could there be a way to make things more stable? Is that the dark cry of the Marxist? More on this later, maybe.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

the perils of a classical education

I misled some of my students last night. So it goes. They need to discover at some point in time that their instructors are flawed and confused about certain things. I wonder if I discussed the subject of "unlearning" on this blog before. It is more difficult than learning, because accumulation of knowledge is quite easy for humans. But, like cleaning out an attic, it's hard to get rid of false beliefs, or subtly change the perception of a complex idea. Grasping a simple truth that flies against convention is even more challenging. And, that simple truth can in turn be upended when new information is revealed.

Monday, November 25, 2013

when a wall is not a wall it is still a wall

It is a general rule of thumb in architecture that a wall is perpendicular to the surface of the planet. This principle holds for most buildings, but some architects like to push the envelope (literal pun there) and generate spaces that are defined by tilted enclosures. There's nothing wrong with this, but examples tend to be rare.

From the perspective of building scientists, the orientation of any surface of a structure is merely one condition that impacts performance in relation to water, air, light, sound, and construction technique. A wall can be a roof or a floor, as long as all of these forces are accounted for.

I tend to prefer vertical walls. If a wall tilts out, I think of it as a wall, but if it tilts in, I think of it as a roof. On that note: window sills are roofs.

Friday, November 22, 2013

leaves of glass

Was Walt Whitman a fraud? He has proved his use in popular culture (I have Breaking Bad on my mind at the moment), but as a literary figure I don't think he is going to demonstrate the longevity of Poe or Stephen Crane. Wait, maybe Stephen Crane has been forgotten outside high school English classes.

Whitman will certainly be remembered as a free-verse visionary, but I regard his work as overly sentimental, naive, and shallow. Despair and love have been more thoroughly examined by more talented writers. Imagery from Toni Morrison still haunts me, and how can we greet the dawn but with rose red fingers?

I still own a copy of Leaves of Grass. I'm not sure what book shelf if it is on.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

debacles and calamities

The website does not mark a high point in the world history of IT or planning, but opponents of the Affordable Care Act are fighting a fairly hopeless rearguard action against a force they do not understand. The media is having good fun with it, but no one seems to be remembering an essential rule of large projects: it doesn't matter if it is a good idea, it doesn't matter if it is poorly executed, it doesn't matter if it is underfunded at conception--it only matters that it starts and that the public is aware of it. One term for this is "stake-driving" and Robert Moses understood it. Steve Jobs understood it. Jesus Christ and his apostles understood it.

Which brings up another point I want to make about principles of management. The phrase "you can't manage what you can't measure" is bandied about as if it were some great Truth. However, measurement doesn't imply numbers. Numbers are helpful when it comes to assessing accuracy, but accuracy may not be achieved after a considerable period of time, at which point an opportunity will be lost. A good manager should make a rough calculation of risks, determine if a course of action can disrupt current trends, and act. Or not act. Not having all available data is a condition of living in this universe. It might rain on Saturday, but Sunday looks clear, so therefore, we will plan our trip for Sunday.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

origins of the malaise

It would have to be the architecture schools. And I am a willing participant in the perpetuation of those myths and delusions. I am on quicksand here--for I threaten a portion of my existence by daring to criticize the methods of an educational process that churns out the foot soldiers of the design profession. And it is that word "criticize" that sums up so many of the problems of the academy. For it is criticism, not performance of the design, that is held to the highest standard. It is the assumption of the major players that "critical thinking" is more valuable than knowledge. But critical thinking about what? The spatial experience is a deeply subjective thing, so the student must graft on a set of reasons, pulled from abstract sources, that are used to justify the curve of a wall, the shape of a roof, the use of a particular material. It invests the studio experience with a sense of wonder, which is a counterpoint to the real world experience:

"And now, for the door and hardware schedule...."

The student bursts into tears.

Monday, November 18, 2013

images of the ideal

I wonder if there is anything unique about American architecture. It could be argued that our relatively short history as a nation hasn't allowed for a cultural identity to form in the built environment. But what of the skyscrapers? And H.H. Richardson? And Frank Lloyd Wright? Surely those stand out as original? Yes, they do, but their influence on our day to day existence is minor. The American experience is of the single family home, the mythology of self-reliance on a quarter acre lot with electricity from the nearest nuclear power plant and smooth roads to drive your Buick down on Sunday afternoons.

Why would this paradise breed such malaise?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

indifference and frustration

Would it be fair to characterize Americans as nostalgic realists? Or would that imply a level of sophistication and introspection that is a projection of my own sense of nostalgia? Did I have a golden age? Do I look back on some period and regard it better than now? I remember a brief period of cheap gasoline when Clinton was president, and I remember all the frustration of youth. The age of mobility has been compromised by a gradual increase in energy costs, and the next generation has to be more careful with choices. And in that regard, the hope of the future is that it is still distinguished by choices--so different from the harsh choice of so many humans past and present--die of violence or die of hunger.

For the modern architect, the overwhelming number of choices--whether in the realm of material selections or design philosophy--is handled in a thoroughly brutal manner. Simply put, most choices are not even considered as worthwhile. Methods that worked in the past are put to use on future projects with minor revisions. Materials and construction systems are dictated by convention and economy. Experimentation is praised, but only for exceptional circumstances and with a whiff of disdain as much as admiration. It is only by setting clear boundaries that the architect can accomplish any work at all, much less survive long enough to find the next job.

What seems odd, is that architects appear frustrated, and are quick to claim to be frustrated by clients, budgets, shoddy contractors, poorly educated staff, and volatile economic situations. The show goes on, and the struggle between indifference and frustration plays itself out in venues like schools and magazines. And blogs, oh yes, for what is this place but a platform of grievances?

Royal Barry Wills seems to have been better at concealing his frustrations.

Friday, November 15, 2013

they built that deliberately

A book I'm reading about U.S. housing mentioned that Louisburg Square in Beacon Hill was a planned development. This shouldn't have surprised me because all the claims that are made about "organic" architecture tend to fall apart when a thorough investigation is made that reveals the motives of the original builders. A place like this was made for the wealthy, and due to very deliberate design decisions it has remained that way for nearly 200 years.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

a monkey in my salad

Never mind all my cynicism and the miserable ramblings on this blog--this is a picture of Architecture. (specifically, the auditorium of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center designed by Zaha Hadid--who manages to outdo Saarinen at the drop of a hat)

We now return to our original program, featuring Las Vegas bashing (with content from special guest correspondent E. Jones) and thoughtful commentary on the Boston Redevelopment Authority by Edward Glaeser.

Las Vegas figures large in cultural and architectural imagination, but in the final assessment, it is a sad place. Its romance is derived from its tendency towards extremes--desperation and optimism, garish beauty and horrific ugliness, the falsehood of its promises and the brutal honesty of the motives of the casino business.
I embrace these seeming contradictions. If was invited to Las Vegas, I would jump at the chance to go there, but I would not plan a holiday there for any reason. Like other people who have been there, I would return with some stories, but none of them would be memorable or original.

Ed Glaeser had a good piece in the Globe this morning. He urged the incoming mayor to be cautious with tampering with the role of the BRA. Efforts to curb development by restructuring the organization would have the unfortunate impact of.........wait for it.......curbs on development, and a subsequent deterioration of Boston.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

second thoughts and third thoughts

The bid for an Olympics in Boston could help the region have a serious discussion about infrastructure improvements and housing development. I had made earlier comments that Boston didn't have the resources to support the Games, but in terms of overall population  of the Metro area we are similar to Athens, Houston, and Atlanta. Financially, the region could support the Games, and build to suit for the primary events. In some respects, I think Boston is better suited than New York City.

I would be worried about the form and location of the Olympic Village. Security concerns could create architecture that would be hard to adapt to future use. And again, where would we put it?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

they built a fire on main street

The Olymipic Village complex in Montreal designed by D'Astous and Durand. Interesting bit of architecture, which reminded me of some of Safdie's work.

Anyway, some more thoughts on a potential Boston Olympiad, and why my skepticism remains deep. Mitt Romney is one of the poo-bahs associated with the exploratory committee, and while his experience with Salt Lake City is notable, it does not make him qualified to make long term plans for a city as old and unusual as Boston. Romney specialized in short term thinking during his business career, and while he might prove capable of organizing a three week party in a city, and even help with some of the negotiations for the construction projects, his mind is not geared for thinking deeply about city planning. Granted, I have issues with "planning" as it applies to human settlement, but like the current spectacle of Casino plans in the state demonstrate, the success of highly concentrated projects distracts attention from more critical issues like demographics, income equality, industrial diversity, and environmental impact.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

more performance anxiety

Spruce Lake Perfomance Center in Stowe Vermont.

How do we kill Barabas on this stage?

the misinformed and the insane

Front page article in the Boston Globe on efforts to get the Summer Olympics for 2024. I've commented on this in the past, and even though I haven't read the article yet, I still think it's a crazy idea. In order for Boston to host the Games the following criteria would have to be met:

1. Hotel occupancy doubled
2. Public Transportation capacity expanded by 30% or more
3. Area for Olympic Village and Arenas to be established in a central location
4. Post occupancy plans for #3 thoroughly vetted for plausibility
5. Good weather

Boston has proven incapable of completing any major urban project in less than 25 years, so it is doubtful that a credible bid could be mounted by 2024. But even if we set our sights on 2036 or later, how could the region absorb the development cost hangover? Who would benefit in the long term?

It should be held in Dallas. Or Houston.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

how much is a pascal anyway

My insulation contractor is unhappy because my house is doing lousy on the blower door test. So it goes. He'll try again in a few minutes.

Meanwhile, this is fascinating:

Vehicle Miles Travelled has been trending downward for the first time in decades--largely due to the Great Recession, but Levinson argues that there are structural changes that will create even more downward pressure on individual car trips. He doesn't cite public transportation--mainly because it is statistically minor, but I like to believe that improved bus service and increased rail service will eventually play a positive role.

I wonder if self-driving cars could have an upward pressure on VMT--people who can't or won't drive will suddenly be able to order a car to take them places instead of waiting for the robotic bus.

it takes an architect 40 years to learn almost nothing

Since towers of ilium has neglected pictures for the last several posts we would like to have a double graphic feature for Thursday. This will not be repeated frequently. The images above are of the Twin Parks housing complex in New York. Typical, low income modernism that people have learned to be indifferent about. The buildings are stacks of double loaded corridors. The staircases and columns represent the heights of design ecstasy. Note how considerate the people are--they leave it empty so the architectural photography is pristine and uncluttered.

Public housing has always been one of the Ur-texts of modernism. Architects regard it as a great social responsibility, but they never really bother to listen to the users, and even if they did, there isn't enough money to do things properly in most cases. And what little money there is often gets spent on design gestures that do little good and frequent harm.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

noam chomsky is wrong

In a recent interview in Salon Noam Chomsky held forth on a variety of topics, including the recent housing bubble and the creation of American suburbs. Although Chomsky gave credit to Dean Baker for calling out the housing bubble while most economists were prostrating themselves before Wall Street and Alan Greenspan, he went astray when he discussed how the American suburbs came into being. He cites the post war era as the break-out period for American suburbs, and while the volume of housing starts during the period is staggering, the essential geometry of low density residential development had been worked out by the end of the 19th century. He also cites the conspiracy of GM to get rid of electric streetcars--which I am skeptical of because Boston still has electric streetcars and they are just as crummy a form of mass transit now as they were a hundred years ago.

Also, Chomsky states that he lives in a suburb "by choice" and by implication, condemns the choices of most other American families to coercion on the part of governments and corporations. I suppose that is partly correct, but he went along with the coercion by choice. I'm going to go admire my vinyl siding now.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

the bbc would like to apologize again

Towers of Ilium tends to be repetitive. The major themes on the blog are as follows:
-What is suburbia?
-What are the limits of the resources of the planet?
-What is the role of the architect in those things?
-Skepticism of the role architects play in worldly affairs
-Occasional commentary and criticism of modern architecture

I wrote the above approximately two years ago. Since then, this blog has become more diversified and sophisticated. We continue to leverage critical synergies with a broad array of stakeholders to improve user experience and maximize technological innovation. 

We also resist the use of jargon, cliche, catchphrases, and pop culture references. 

Last night I spread the gospel of the Building Science Corporation to a class of BAC students. I have a project at work that is testing my knowledge of building codes and systems. The critical question is this: Will I seek out the right type of help soon enough and will the client be able to afford comprehensive design services?

Monday, November 4, 2013

the reliability of memory

I'm trying to remember why I took this photograph. I think it was because the view in real life was much better--a tree lined street in a classic Boston neighborhood, or something like that.

I'm wondering if we're going to have any new revelations in Building Science over the next few decades. So many of the essential problems were solved back in the 1960's (and then forgotten for many years) that I can't help but think that we've got it all figured out. More has to be done to educate architects and mechanical engineers. We're past the days of 400 s.f. a ton.

Friday, November 1, 2013

the start of another winter of discontent

Actually, it is about 70 degrees in Boston this morning. Some warm, wet wind from a more favorable climate is blowing down our aged streets. Somewhere, a queen is weeping, somewhere, a king..... wait, I'm getting all mixed up here. I was going to try for a more professional sounding blog this month and I've already ruined it.

Maybe I should post a picture, but nothing is grabbing at me this morning. I'm wondering about the value of old books. They serve as an insight into the past, but they aren't entirely reliable because they represent a narrow point of view. I should spend some time considering nostalgia and architecture, especially since it is a topic that is so close to home. The United States uses nostalgia more deviously than any other nation. We have alternative histories like any culture, but we also have the ability to create future states, particularly in architecture, that are branded as "classic" or "timeless."  We undertake this delusional task with such enthusiasm that it distinguishes us from the rest of the world. The Chinese employ different methods in that they have no reluctance in copying other styles, but I sense that their actions are less naive and more deliberate. Then again, I can't speak for all Chinese--they are as fraudulent as any human group that seeks to forge an identity based on a common narrative.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

the intersections of social responsibility

Well, I lost a dollar. That was front page news, along with an article about the developer of the Fenway Center Project requesting 7.8 million dollars in tax breaks from the city of Boston for his air rights project over the Mass Turnpike. Whenever I read about tax breaks being granted to a private business I get an immediate surge of irritation--a libertarian/primate revulsion towards a wealthy person getting a handout. Upon reflection, I think tax breaks for this project are justified, and not just because the city will recoup the money more than ten times over. The MassPike was a social investment that also had a detrimental impact on the social fabric of the community. It is fitting that there be a social investment in the repair and remediation of the original project.

And, 7.8 million dollars is pocket change--not enough to buy a good pitcher for the Sox.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

picture tuesday

Okay. I recently based a $1 bet on the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series. I might have to pay up after Wednesday. I expect the Fenway Park crowd to be hostile and aggressive that evening.

Meanwhile, in architecture news I'm going through my first HERS rating for a new house. It's a process I feel I should know more about, but, I let myself get complacent. From what I've learned so far, I'm still a bit skeptical of the process, but I think it has a good philosophical foundation. My main objection is that it evaluates a house as a unit, as opposed to evaluating a weighted unit area. As a consequence, a large house can appear more efficient than a smaller house. Passive House also suffers from this approach.

Tomorrow's blog will be easier to understand.

Monday, October 28, 2013

the idea of the machine

These things did not prove to be the breakthrough that some people hoped they would be. It's a nice idea for places like California or Florida. And it's nice if you don't have to carry anything like groceries or children, but it ain't no car.

I'm not bold enough to think of something like this, and I like to believe that I would never participate in a venture that invested considerable resources in an unproven idea. Innovation is mostly failure, but in order for social progress to happen, failed innovations have to, well, fail.

Friday, October 25, 2013

frustration (part of the series)

Based on what I've been taught about architectural history, the concept of "crisis" didn't exist until the early twentieth century. Prior to modernism, architects competed against each other, but they did not attempt to foment revolutions or declare stylistic approaches criminal or foolish. The continuity and consistency of style that was expressed at the Exposition of 1893 in Chicago can be regarded as a high point of agreement on aesthetics. The legacy of that attitude, and of the conservative eclecticism of the 19th century, can be seen in the finest neighborhoods of towns and cities across the country.

Modernism killed the historical approach towards architectural design. Novelty became prized ahead of craft. The Art Deco represented a bright period of compromise, but at the end of the day, the glass and concrete box became the symbol of the new industrial state. The single family home was relegated to the domain of the developer/builder.

The modernists created a war out of nothing, that served no purpose except to alienate users and spawn a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions in the academic institutions. Modernism begat Brutalism, which begat Post-Modrnism and Deconstructivism. Maybe things have come full circle in that no one can lay claim to a predominate style at the moment, but what is clear to me, and what is the source of my frustration--and in no small part, the purpose for towers of ilium--is that architects cannot communicate the idea of beauty to regular people.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

the big data architecture smart city thing job quest

An unflattering picture of a part of Masdar City. I suppose it will make an interesting ruin someday.

I just remembered that I was supposed to be working on a book about architecture. My editor has been remiss in not hounding me for material. I may have to return my advance (wait-- I drank that beer).

I've read in a few places about the concept of Big Data--which I loosely interpret as a future state, which is already built in some places like Google and Netflix, where computer algorithms make basic life tasks more efficient and fulfilling. I'm optimistic about Big Data because I think it will be essential to the operation of self-driving cars. I'm also not that worried about nefarious organizations like the NSA, the Chinese government, or international terrorists corrupting such large systems. I think that the good people will outnumber the bad people and the level of mischief will be about the same as it always has been in modern society. (Note towers of ilium disclaimer about future predictions).

As applied to architecture and urban planning, I have some skepticism. Design is an emotional endeavor, and the management of large cities is often like efforts to control climate systems or plate tectonics.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

a good season

Apples are doing particularly well in the northeast this year. Last year was a near disaster for orchards, but the pendulum swings. Maybe next year will be average. I've read that climate change will eventually wreck the maple syrup operations in New England. Hopefully, Canada will pick up the slack.

Over the next 100 hundred years the adaptation of humanity to a warming planet will make for some real horror. Those who are struggling now will certainly be struggling more. Coastal architecture will have to be evaluated carefully. The hard terms of insurance companies may force abandonment of settlements in a few critical areas.

As always, towers of ilium will certainly be wrong in the prediction market.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Louis Kahn could do architecture. But, I've never read or heard much about how his buildings have performed over time. Students probably still love his library at Philips Exeter--and I'm sure it has inspired some to try their hand at architecture. I never heard of Kahn until deep into college.

Looking at this building, I'm seeing how the work  of Charles Moore, Michael Graves, and Robert Venturi can seem pale and flat. Kahn never went for irony--he took everything he did seriously. We will return to him in a hundred years.

Monday, October 21, 2013


I've been thinking about theatre seating a lot lately. Curved is better, but straight is simpler. If it is a small space then straight is fine, but at what number of seats should we start curving? And, how many rows of seats can be on the flat part in front of the stage if the stage isn't raised? These questions have a mathematical solution, but viewer comfort and expectations still lend the analysis a subjective slant. At least, that's what I think.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

on democracy

I don't have a good alternative to the way governance is conducted throughout the U.S., but I can think of some ways to improve the process.

-Put a shelf life on laws when they are enacted.
-Maintain meeting schedules
-Use electronic communication more aggressively
-Have technical review and explanatory organizations
-Remove power from uninformed constituents
-Have more public financing
-Have fewer boards

Oh well. It's nice to think about things like this.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

the end of litter

Despite the idea of "cradle to cradle" product design, humans will continue to excel at making trash. I am a particularly profligate trash producer--I read not one, but two, printed newspapers each morning. The one I read on the train is in my possession for less than an hour. I always make a point of throwing out the loose advertising flyers included in my papers.

Someday, this might all change. I should be getting all my media content on a computer anyway. Speaking of which, I have to throw out an old computer tomorrow. Because it contains toxic materials, I have to call for a special pickup. Is there an app for that?

I decided not to clutter up the blog post today with a superfluous graphic.

Monday, October 14, 2013

the discretionary home

The fact that this image did not load properly is actually appropriate for today's post.

A recent incident with the smoke alarms in my house made me aware of one of the most important qualities of residential architecture--perhaps the most important quality: Passive Reliability. Fundamentally, the critical components of a house that make it essential to survival do not rely on moving parts. Foundations, Roofs, Walls, Windows, and Doors are all static systems from the perspective of the occupant. Doors and Windows, if they are operable, move under use control and the energy input for use is minimal.

Modern houses contain a variety of mechanical devices--namely heating/cooling systems and electricity--that are also under user control. Both these systems are miraculous and reflect deep technological investments of multiple generations, and their impact on the maintenance of comfort exceeds the labor of an army of servants. They are discrete, fairly reliable, and surprisingly cheap to maintain and operate (but for how much longer?)

The electronic excitement of our internet age makes the experience of a home that is quiet, warm, and dry  a wonderful experience. Many people feel enslaved by their smart phones and social media constructs, so the brief joy and solitude of hearing your front door close behind you at the end of a day is of profound importance.

Friday, October 11, 2013

machine age

This is a deceptively simple piece of machinery. Some people would say it is only one part of a system of a more complex machine, but I think it has enough stand alone qualities to be placed on the same shelf as a Boeing airplane. I have no idea how it is put together. I have a conceptual knowledge of how it works, but if tasked to design and build something like it, I could spend a lifetime and not match it or improve on it.

And like all things metal made by the hand of humans, it will deteriorate and become rubbish with a marginal scrap value.

I can't justify the expense of this piece of machinery for my personal use, but I appreciate its quality.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

methods of accuracy

This sublime image is of a tar and gravel roof.

My question for the day is this: Where should the most effort be expended---preventing errors, or establishing a system for fixing errors at all points in a  process? Error prevention is preferable from the perspective of a person who is a victim of a preventable error, but it implies a perfect world with perfect operators. Also, what about the errors that don't manifest for a long period of time? How can a prevention system be established without constantly analyzing what is going on?

I favor a revision heavy approach to design and construction. You can't know what could go wrong until you start doing something.

Today, I will be asked to address at least three errors that I bear responsibility for.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

meanwhile, in gonic new hampshire

I was just told that the Vermont Brick company has gone out of business. Vermont Brick was, in some respects,  the successor to the Kane-Gonic Brick company, that was based in Rochester New Hampshire. It is tough to be a small scale brick manufacturer.

Here is a picture of Rochester New Hampshire.

Monday, October 7, 2013

government shutdown curtails pictures on this blog

Okay. I'm curious about what's going through the minds of some of the people in Washington D.C. right now. I'd love to get the input of a game theorist, and I'm sure that some cursory web searching could turn up some analysis. One of the larger issues here has to do with risk taking. Humans love to take risks, and the majority of us demonstrate a poor grasp of the odds of success and failure. The politicians in Washington, most notably, the Tea Party representatives, are making a big gamble. However, they will not suffer real, personal  consequences should their venture fail.

This plays out in many aspects of our society. Fund managers get to gamble with other people's money. They are rewarded for bad decisions and good ones. Architects gamble with a client's money, but the failures can be safely contained in piles of paper. Built failures test people's patience and capacity for adaptation--but only for a little while.

Friday, October 4, 2013


Did I spell that right? Too lazy and busy to check this morning.

I painted myself into a corner yesterday. Actually, how could anyone be dumb enough to do that?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

more interesting times

Towers of Ilium occasionally makes loud, poorly reasoned claims. Actually, towers of ilium frequently does that, but a focus on journalistic integrity and philosophical consistency was never a high priority. In that regard we are like the rest of American Media.

The current events in the Republican controlled House of Representatives are not good at all. If things get worse, certain Tea Party legislators will find that their fundraising prospects will be diminished. Furthermore, their constituents--more than a handful dependent on Medicare and other benefits of government--may decide that the warmth of ideological purity are outweighed by continued membership in a civilized society.

We'll see. At the moment, towers of ilium is somewhat concerned about immediate economic prospects and fallout.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

the unreliability of memory

I've probably driven by this building more than a hundred times over the past twelve years, but if you had asked me yesterday to locate it on a map I would have blanked out. I don't think I'm suffering from memory failure, yet. The issue is that buildings that are memorable can slip from our understanding. Now, this isn't the most memorable building, but it is more unique than the local CVS drugstore. If every CVS were to be torn down overnight, people would be puzzled more than outraged. "Did they even exist?" we would all ask, before shrugging our shoulders and walking into the nearest Walgreens.

This is the Masonic Temple Building downtown Quincy. It was badly damaged in a fire on Monday. No sprinklers.

Monday, September 30, 2013

about that location thing

Okay, yesterday I made a passing reference to the phrase "if we built it, they will come" and now I find myself wondering how valid that is for circumstances of successful architecture. Location is terribly, terribly real, but it involves factors that transcend physical geography. What I am referring to can roughly be described as "social location" and it is the sum total of all the people who are in a place, as well as the people who want to go to that place. Sentimentality also plays a role, because we assign a value to the people who used to be in a place--i.e. Elvis is Graceland.

But what about the architecture? Surely it plays a role? I contend that the role of architecture in place making is more temporary than the people--past/present/future. Too much emphasis on the architecture of a place makes the person less valuable, and can have a negative impact on the value the architecture returns to people. We value Pompeii because it is a ruin, and its worth can be assigned to its destruction and subsequent  re-discovery and preservation. There can be no talk of restoring the city to its glory.

architecture as nonfiction

This space could end up being important. Or maybe not. From the point of view of pure space, it scores very high marks--broad spans, high ceiling,  robust structure. From the point of view of functional adaptability, it requires money, patience, and motivation. The location is bad, but we like to hope that if we build it, someone will come--a few hundred people a week, or something along those lines.

That's all the information I can give out right now. In other news I made a purchase this weekend that is forcing me to think about space planning in my own home. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, September 27, 2013

where angels fear to tread on architects

Paul McMorrow had a recent article that criticized Boston City Hall and proposed (as have many other people) that it be sold to a developer. Predictably, the Globe published a few letters from defenders and apologists for the building.

Ultimately, the building and the plaza are doomed. Boston property is coming of age in value and no mayor has a political stake in the preservation of the building. The re-development will proceed like an opera, but the end result will be some form of improvement to public space and steep profits for a chosen few.

I think this image is model of one of the losing entries in the original design competition.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

a question posed and answered

How many cars is a Zipcar worth? I might have posed this question in the past, but I have yet to see an answer anywhere.

For the sake of discussion I propose that a Zipcar, when provided in the context of an urban, residential development, is worth between four and six normal cars. Thus, a developer who provides dedicated car sharing parking spaces near a project should be credited with more spaces than if they are reserved for tenants.

Why between four and six? Because here at towers of ilium we make up numbers. (That's our new slogan.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

and the long walk continues

I worked on the design on of this house, but that was in another country...

The images on this blog have been either non-existent, or uninspired as of late. Yet another example of the ennui of the 21st century--the long, slow decay of art and culture, the degradation of morals, etc....I'm just feeling guilty because I haven't mowed my lawn in over two weeks. I suppose I'll do it one last time before the leaves fall so I look somewhat respectable. My wife pointed out that the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" refers to Edith Wharton's family from the great gilded era in New York. The Joneses were extraordinarily wealthy and to aspire to be like them was one of the things that drove the inequity, greed, and corruption of that period. Nowadays, values have shifted and inequity deepened and broadened. No one in Edith Wharton's time could get Botox or owned a television set.

Things will persist for at least four more decades, in my opinion. The era of cheap, solar power will then be upon us.

Monday, September 23, 2013

modernity in a nutshell

A few days ago I was having a discussion with my father about the state of the world and prospects for the future. We concluded that that major difference between his generation and mine was the cost of energy. For most of his life, energy was cheap, and for most of mine it has been expensive--and will grow more costly as time goes by.

No more commentary on Steve Jobs except this: He had his moment in the sun, and I do not begrudge him for his success. His legacy will only significant for a few decades. That too, is modernity in a nutshell.

As a matter of form, I refer to "modernity" as the here and now, not the great heyday of Eliot, Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and Fitzgerald. If we can't own the word "modern" what point is there in even having it?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

projections of future states (part IX)

The Boston Globe had an article today that raised questions about the revenue projections for the proposed Suffolk Downs Caesar's Casino. Naturally, the proponents of the project are sticking to their claim. They could turn out to be right if two things happen; inflation picks up and no significant competing venues are built nearby. In the meantime, I will side with those who are more conservative in their approach to the income promised by this venture.

In general, I have mixed feelings about organized gambling. People want to bet on things, and it seems to be ingrained in our nature. I am skeptical when politicians and business interests collude to promote these activities. (See item #2--Wall Street)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

meanwhile at pixar studios

I'm listening to the radio right now. I feel that is a mistake. It's making me forget to do simple things, like load the picture for this blog post.

So, more Steve Jobs today. I'm finishing up the biography by Isaacson, so pretty soon, we won't have to be bothered by this drivel much longer.

This is the Pixar headquarters, which Jobs was instrumental in designing. He insisted on an atrium/hallway that would encourage collaborative meetings and chance encounters. I guess it's working. Bohlin designed it. It looks more practical than the Apple Stores.

Monday, September 16, 2013

the eichler legacy

So, Steve Jobs grew up in a house like this one. I'm impressed by the stylistic purity of Eichler's houses, and I can see the strong links to the Modernist continuum. These are very dated houses from the perspective of enclosure design and material usage (and probably seismic considerations). Also, a photo like this makes the design appear more like a fishbowl than it actually is.

I need to find out more about him. Royal Barry Wills had a stock plans that was stylistically similar.

Friday, September 13, 2013

the sixties

There's a line from Peter Fonda in  the movie The Limey, that goes something like this:

"It was a dream, not a place....that was the could speak the language... And it was only '66 and early '67, that's all it was."

For me, the sixties reach out across the decades and place a heavy hand on all that seems to transpire in the present. I was never there, nor would I want to go there, but I feel that events of that period resonate more strongly than things that happened in the years preceding or following. The trippy dope fiends and the military created the computer age. The international efforts of the government were revealed as insane, naked aggression, and the bright light of the atomic age shone down on every living thing. Men walked on the moon.

I do not know if the world we live in today is more mad, or less.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

thoughts on yesterday

Twelve years out. For a teenager in an American high school the events of that day must seem surreal. What spin do their textbooks put on it? The ongoing wars, which I know less about than I ought to, continue to cause havoc out of proportion to their inspiration. The walls of our prison in Cuba seem sturdy enough and there is certainly no trace of that body in the Indian Ocean--and what comfort does that give us? What sense of security have we gained, or given to others?

I picture an office worker that day, going through the ritual of the elevators, feeling glad to get to work on time, to have a job, to have someone to look forward to going home to that evening.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

how humans make progress

The debut of the latest iPhone gives us an opportunity to consider how we actually move culture forward--very slowly, by increments, and by the inputs of many people who will be forgotten. I regard our obsession with heroes a bit silly and anachronistic. When we were small tribes of hunters and peasants it made sense to acknowledge the achievements of the Big Man or Big Woman who could make a real difference to the group. Steve Jobs was never a Big Man--he just thought he was.

I'm reading about how the CIA discovered the mole Aldrich Ames after a lengthy and exhaustive investigation. The book, written by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, is plodding, bureaucratic, detailed, repetitive, and indispensable. Please note that I use those adjectives in a positive way in an effort to highlight how things actually get done in the real world. If they had proceeded in any other way they would not have been successful. Few members of Congress of the media could possible understand that.

While I am skeptical of the utility of Heroes, I do believe in Villains. It is far easier for some malicious bastard, or deeply stupid idiot, to completely mess things up to such an extent that no group of people, no matter how motivated or dedicated, can put it to rights.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

that's not a house, that's a home

The problem with older buildings is that they're old. Now, before anyone starts attacking the circular logic that is the hallmark of this blog (when there is any logic at all), let's consider the ways in which we assign value to certain things. Age is credited with imparting character, and it correlates with scarcity, which in turn increases cost in the right marketplace. But age implies deterioration for human made things, and deterioration creates a dilemma, for a certain aspect of character depends on it. Age implies uncertainty--when will this break? becomes a constant question.

Architecture outlives expectations with a bare minimum of care and maintenance, but age inexorably wears everything down. We rarely say that a building collapsed because of age--we assign a more proximal cause--and deny the cumulative impact of years of bad decisions.

Monday, September 9, 2013

the prison of architecture

Michael Sorkin's most recent article in the Nation magazine challenges architects to boycott prison design. He acknowledges that the ethical dilemmas presented by certain types of commissions are something that all designers have to confront periodically, but prisons in the U.S. are the worst case. We discriminate against minorities with our sentencing laws and create environments for punishment that only worsen crime.

I would sign onto this. I consider my involvement in the design of an incarceration facility unlikely, and I would only take on such work if I was starving. If things get to that point, then I might have other priorities.

A cynical observer could claim that the modern American way of life is a type of prison. But such metaphors don't stand up to the reality of waking up in a concrete cell. Spiritual fortitude and asceticism are much lauded by certain religions, but I prefer being able to drive to a Wal-Mart to buy cheap objects. The issue of freedom is not a simple one, but as John Cash noted "The culture of a thousand years is removed by the clanging of a cell door." Or something like that.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

deterioration of beliefs

Are all glass facades okay for some building types? I'm starting to struggle with that again. I think it comes down to the gain vs. enclosure dominated building condition. Suppose an office building has an all glass facade with with spectrally selective glazing and exterior sunshading supplemented by interior shades. In northern climates will the heat gains on the interior, plus solar gains, mitigate heat loss to the exterior? Will occupants be more comfortable and pay lower utility bills than occupants in an equivalent building with a more "appropriate" wall to window ratio?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

the unprivate dwelling

I wonder if any states have built a governor's mansion in the last fifty years. Massachusetts does not have one, and I consider that a symbol of the stupid Yankee frugality that manifests itself in this oh so liberal state. A governor's mansion helps to emphasize the public role that the highest elected official has in the community. Critical social functions, including fundraising, can take place there and will be more open to the public eye than if the governor has a more private residence.

I'm not sure what forces would have to align to build a governor's house in this day and age. I wonder if the forces of tradition would triumph over the forces of modernism. Probably.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

the long death of springfield massachusetts

I'm having a hard time describing what is wrong with Springfield, Massachusetts. If you want an objective assessment, this blog is certainly not a resource, but I don't think objectivity can quite do justice to the manifest urban failure of that city. It wasn't until I was driving back into Boston yesterday that I noticed one of the big differences--Boston is cluttered; Springfield feels like an empty house after an estate sale--empty rooms full of nothing but dust and scraps of worthless paper. I'm painting an extreme picture here, but people who work and live in Springfield must notice the oddness of the place.

I feel that some of the major corporate players there have written the place off. Mass Mutual has a miserable concrete office building, Smith and Wesson assembles guns, The Basketball Hall of Fame sits grandly next to the highway,  and a handful of businesses try to make a go of it amidst the genteel decay and misery. So what if they get a casino? Probably just another white elephant and a broken promise

Sunday, September 1, 2013

the end of apple and the triumph of the system

Computer not letting me post image of Apple's proposed headquarters.

I predict that in about thirty years the legend of Apple and Steve Jobs will have faded into obscurity. I own no Apple products, and based on the other options out there for technology devices, I probably won't ever.
People will drive by the steel skeleton of the Apple building in California, rusting in the bright sun, and wonder what it was for. If they are curious, they can try Googling it, or asking Siri. Maybe they'll be more focused on survival at that point, what with the genetically engineered zombies and the Hollywood stars who have been upgraded to vampire status.

And what will happen to the money? Apple has cash on hand that could almost keep the U.S. government running for a few weeks. Consultants, shareholders, vendors, and corrupt management will siphon it off over the years. The iPhone 10 will be a complete flop--the design team will have gone retro and made the thing seven pounds with a coal burning generator and a touchy self-destruct mechanism. But people won't buy it because it only comes in two colors. So sad.

Friday, August 30, 2013

alterations for eternity

Someone I know who is looking to buy a house had this to say: "Everything that's original is in good shape; it's the newer stuff that looks bad." Or something along those lines. A year ago I was having a discussion with a fellow architect who was recounting a conversation he had with a very experienced remodeling contractor--"When you dig into an old house the original structure is well built. The additions built afterwards decline in quality."

And from these anecdotes we could reach stunning conclusions about the general decline of construction quality in the United States of America. Or, we can infer that the compromises and challenges involved with maintaining, updating, and adding onto existing buildings are so exhausting that at some point the person doing the work just shakes his or head and tacks something together that keeps the thing limping along for a few more decades.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

the triumph of systems

The three things pictured here are designed to deliver comfort with convenience for the occupants of a building. I don't find these pieces of machinery attractive, but that is because I am a snob and a philistine. I'm also snubbing the efforts of the design team that made an effort to make them attractive. I can't help but wonder what they would look like if the people at Apple built them.

When I speak of the triumph of systems in architecture I refer to things that are small, or in some cases invisible. We see mortar joints, and because we can see them they take on a visual significance that transcends their functionality. We do not see insulation, or wiring, or structure in many buildings. The HVAC system is assessed from the point of view of our comfort and our utility bill. Parts of a building that have been designed purely for visual delight are the first things to be cut.